Monday, August 15, 2011

Insiders and experts tell us why Afghan engagement is futile

Edited by Amin Saikal.
Melbourne University Press. 210pp.
Reviewed: 30 July 2011
The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign.
By Sherard Cowper-Coles.
Harper Press.312pp.
Reviewed:  5 August 2011

Conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and The Levant – Eyewitness reports from the September 11 decade. By Paul McGeough.
Allen and Unwin. 338pp.
Reviewed: 5 August 2011

It was the burden of the prophetess Cassandra to see future doom, but her curse was that nobody would believe her warnings.

The bloody embrace of Western nations with Afghanistan is a situations in which everybody who knows what they are talking about realises that almost the entire Western engagement has been futile and even counter-productive.

The first of these books is a symposium of experts from a conference at the Centre for Islamic and Central Asian Studies at the Australian National University.  All of them are area experts, several of them are Afghans, others are distinguished military strategists or social development activists.

Several contributors refer to the great needs for social development in Afghanistan - but none of these could convince me that the Western alliance could deliver such development in any way that would survive the imminent withdrawal of western military forces on the ground.

Most depressingly, the strategy experts (such as Prof Hugh White) question whether the missions, and particularly Australia's tag-along mission, were ever undertaken for good reasons.  We all remain hostage to the hegemonistic fantasies of the neo-con Bush administration.

Sadly, it seems that our own democratic societies are part of the problem. Our leaders can be overthrown by media-driven perceptions that they are "weak", so they struggle to avoid the appearance of anything that can be described as "defeat".  Military establishments and government advisers all try to avoid association with defeat, and so continue to pretend that "victory" is possible. It reminds me of stockbrokers and real estate agents constantly assuring investors that they will be OK "in the long run".

Cables from Kabul is a personal memoir of a classic kind. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is a classic kind of English establishment product, talented as well as privileged, who served as British Ambassador in Kabul and as the UK's Special Representative on Afghanistan during 2010.

His perspective is that the western alliance should have learned more from the accumulated history of failed imperial engagements with Afghanistan, particularly the experience of the British Empire a century or two ago. He is probably right. But making these points too often and too cheekily for Washington's taste eventaully caused embarassment in London, and thus put an end to his diplomatic career. We can be grateful for this - his memoir is a classic and fun to read, though the man himself might be difficult to get along with and shows a rather patronising attitude toward Australians (as well as Americans).

Infernal Triangle is a journalistic collection by distinguished war correpondent, Paul McGeough.  The collected despatches cover not only Afghanistan but also Iraq and Palestine (thus the Triangle).  He provides many useful perspectives - one being the interconnection between these different war zones.  Another is  that the chronological sequence of his reports shows his growing disillusion with the Western "project" to democratise Islam.  Western indulgence of Israel's expansionism is the common factor linking it all together,  because it defines the entire West as an enemy of Islam and, worse, as hypocritical.

It is sheer madness that our governments turn a willful blind eye to that obvious canker and obstacle to peace and development. Perhaps this is another artifact of our democractic subjection to determined propaganda. Let's never forget that Hitler came to power in Germany by democratic elections.   In our era, the real saboteurs of global peace are not Islamists, and not Zionists, but madcap Christian fundamentalists who terrorise American electoral politics (and some ill-informed elements of the Australian electorate as well).

Read the reviews for a rant-free evaluation of these three worthwhile books.

This blog may become less polite..

Two things have indicated it is time for a change of direction in The Lost Colophon.

First, I've upgraded my personal book reviews site at Richard Thwaites' Book Reviews so that the full text of reviews is easier to find.  The new pages present concise summaries and a dated list of links to all past reviews, which is easier to navigate than this public blog's format that hides everything in dated archives.  Who ever browses by dates???

So there's no more need to post extensive texts of my published reviews here.

Second, there are certain constraints and conventions in writing reviews for an established print medium such as The Canberra Times, the newspaper of Australia's national capital.  An a priori respect for the author, and  an attempt to be fair to the  written work, are reasonable premises from which to write a non-fiction review.  A reviewer should avoid grandstanding and self-promotion, while providing readers with the best possible understanding of the qualities and limitations of the work under review.

But this virtuous commitment to balance leaves little room for the reviewer to share, with his own readers, the essence of the reading experience: how did this book affect me?

So, as of now, The Lost Colophon will record the personal aspects of the book-review task as I experience it, stepping through current non-fiction works of authors who are trying to say something that is worth taking seriously.

I'll be talking about all the books I review, and referring interested readers to the reviews themselves at  Richard Thwaites' Book Reviews.